The Sea of Reeds as a Communal Mikvah (Parashat Beshellach)

The author discusses the events of the climactic moment of this parasha, the splitting of the Sea of Reeds, and the trauma that the Israelites brought with them with they reached the Sea to cross it. She draws parallels between a traumatic event in her own life and the enslavement of the Israelites, and the struggle and emotional work it takes to reach the “crossing.”

January 15, 2011

By Amy Soule


Parashat Beshellach

The Sea of Reeds as a Communal Mikvah

by Amy Soule on Saturday January 15, 2011 10 Shevat 5771

Exodus 13:17 – 17:16

Anytime I look through Parashat Beshellach and come to its climax, where our ancestors enter the sea of reeds, it’s hard for me to avoid thinking about a song Lara Fabian wrote some years ago, entitled “Ici” or “Here”.

Ici, ici j’ai connu la nuit J’ai reçu la pluie Comme une délivrance Parfois touché le silence

(Here, I knew darkness. I received the rain like a deliverance, sometimes touched (by) the silence.)

Her music also reminds me of an event, also involving water, that I went through, coincidentally enough, on the afternoon prior to erev Shabbat Beshellach two years ago.

Her initial stanza, if making reference to our Torah portion, can perhaps indicate that our ancestors came to the edge of the sea of reeds hardly having forgotten the servitude they had been involved in for so many generations. For me, it’s a reminder of the hard event I had been through and the fact that, although I had never believed I could ever feel drawn toward the “mayim chayim” (feminists aren’t supposed to want anything to do with it, right?, let alone that according to other stereotypes it’s only supposed to be for straight people?), that water felt like a kind of deliverance, helping me feel sane about everything and like I was moving toward total healing.

Ici j’ai appris à l’oubli Ici, Ici, j’ai déjà aimé Même détesté Au-delà du bien Aimé, au-delà du mal Ici, pouvoir tout recommencer.

(Here I learned to forget. Here I already loved, even hated, beyond good and evil; here everything can recommence.)

Moving beyond difficult circumstances is hardly easy; I’m pretty sure our ancestors could never completely forget about the slavery they had been subjected to. Also, as much as I may want to, I doubt I’m ever going to forget about the incident that occurred eight days prior to my twentieth birthday. To contrast, moving beyond hard events, as the song suggests, is very possible. Also, having some kind of rite to mark that progression can help facilitate this. Moving through the sea of reeds, or, to put in our times, mayim chayim ceremonies, can serve as a division between various times we live through and create a sense that time is restarting.

C’est comme si un ange soudain Me retenait les mains J’ai regagné enfin la lumière La certitude d’être forte est debout Comme un instant de paix À travers les éclairs Je suis du ciel Du ciel et de la terre

(It’s as if an angel suddenly held my hands once more. I finally regained the light, the certitude of being strong and erect as an instant of peace through the lightning flashes. I’m of heaven and earth.)

Her chorus sings about feeling sure of yourself despite everything you’ve been through. To feel sane or have freedom after an era of hardship, no matter whether it lasts for centuries or mere months, can come as unexpectedly as an intense thunderstorm ending. Also, feeling decent about yourself can contribute toward making self-affirmations, like remembering that you are “of heaven and earth” or in God’s image, feel real and deserved rather than empty statements you’re making due to a desire to believe they are accurate.

Mais ici, ici j’ai vu la colère Mes peines se défairent Mes envies de batailles Laissées aux chiens de paille Ici, enfin tout ressemble à la vie

(Here, I saw anger (also). My pains are undoing themselves; my desires for fights are left to the straw dogs. Here, everything finally resembles life.)

I’d be extremely shocked if our ancestors hadn’t approached the sea of reeds angry about everything they had lived through. It’s also easy for me to remember feeling frustrated for many months once the incident had happened, even that same afternoon as I was making my way to the mayim chayim. However, as time goes on, perhaps facilitated through marking times and transitions as holy, any struggles we have faced can be left alone and everything can come to resemble life, even if it’s not the life we had lived prior to the negative event.

Healing is hardly ever easy. Sometimes, even if you want to, it can feel hard making those tentative first steps. Midrashim making reference to our Torah portion, for instance, suggest that no one was willing to enter the water and that was why Moses cried to out to God for assistance (BT, Sotah 37a). God’s response suggests Moses was supposed to be proactive rather than assume divine intervention was automatic.

A second midrash indicates that it wasn’t until Nachshon entered the water-and that it had reached his nose, preventing him from moving independently-that God eventually split the water and our ancestors were able to move through the sea of reeds. (b’midbar rabbah 13:9)

Giving a different perspective, a third midrash reveals Nachoson was the first person to enter the water but his action was a result of having slipped; it wasn’t his decision to enter the water (M’chilta, B’shellach 5).

Any of us who have been through events no one should have to go through can probably relate to these various midrashim. We may want, so hard, to believe that we are ready to mark leaving those difficult times but feel doubt about if we are ready for such rituals, let alone wonder if we deserve them. Perhaps our haggadot have it right: Matzah reminds us that when the chance for liberation comes, we must seize it even if we do not feel ready-indeed, if we wait until we feel fully ready, we may never act at all.

Freedom is something we all deserve, no matter the kinds of experiences we’ve had that make us feel “less than” other people, dirty, or anything else negative. Making those steps may not feel easy but we deserve to feel we have the right to be making them. We all deserve the ability to restart our lives if we’ve had to endure hard events. May all people seeking total healing come to their own sea of reeds soon.